In my latest Atlantic column (link good for three days), I look at how George Hurrell created the iconic photos that defined Golden Age Hollywood. The column is adapted from a longer essay I wrote for the catalog to a major retrospective exhibition of Hurrell's photos, which will open at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica in January.
Good portraits are said to "reveal character." As I write in the column:
Yet these photos weren't entirely artificial. Not even the most gifted photographer can create charisma with only lights and a retouching pencil. Hurrell didn't invent Joan Crawford's drive or Jean Harlow's sexuality. Rather, he encouraged the stars to reveal their inner selves to his lens. Then he intensified their defining qualities, while creating mystery with light and shadow.
True enough for clearly defined personas as Crawford and Harlow (though, as the article goes on to explain, less so for Garbo). But I'm skeptical at how reliably something as genetically determined as facial appearance can reveal character. Maybe we want to believe we can see character in a good portrait, because that would suggest we can accurately judge character from the faces we see every day.